of the Hegemon:
The Sequel and the Prequel
by Leon Hadar
wisdom in Washington is that the North Korean nuclear test is just
the latest demonstration of the Bush Doctrine being challenged by
an aggressive international player intent on defying the dictates
of the current global hegemon.
Hence, if after
the Cuban Missile Crisis, thenUS president John Kennedy could
say that the US and the Soviet Union stood eyeball to eyeball and
the other fellow blinked, this time it was US President George W
Bush and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il who stood eyeball to
eyeball and – Mr. Bush blinked.
this perspective, since President Bush asserted the commitment by
the world's last remaining superpower to thwart any attempt by the
members of the Axis of Evil and their subsidiaries to acquire weapons
of mass destruction (WMD), the US Administration has been engaged
in a very costly and failed strategy – at the center of which has
been the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq –
that has resulted in the overstretching of American military power.
In a way, the
US hegemon has been humbled because it had to deal within the constraints
of its diplomatic and military power. Neither in North Korea nor
in Iran would the United States be able to unilaterally use its
power to force these regimes to give up their nuclear programs.
Washington's earlier hopes for achieving "regime change"
in Pyongyang and Teheran sounds like a fantasy today.
strategic reality explains why Kim Jong Il and, for that matter,
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are prepared to go ahead and
acquire nuclear capabilities. They understand that only by going
nuclear would they be able to deter the US from doing to them what
it had done to Saddam Hussein.
And they have
concluded that with America sinking deeper into a military quagmire
in Iraq, its military stretched thin and its voters opposed to new
overseas adventures, the chances for a US military response to their
acquisition of WMDs are very slim.
Bush Administration finds itself in a position of having no choice
but to use diplomacy – working with other powers – through the six-party
talks in the case of North Korea and with the aid of the EU3 with
regard to Iran.
wisdom that considers the Bush Doctrine, with its emphasis on the
willingness to use preemptive military action against regimes and
terrorists coveting WMDs and the ensuing war in Iraq, as developments
that set in motion the current process of humbling the hegemon is
But it's incomplete.
Even in the heyday of the postCold War era – during America's
so-called Unilateral Moment – Washington's political-military power
was never invincible. The notion that the US was the global hegemon
reflected it success in asserting its "soft power" in
the aftermath of the collapse of the communist bloc and the subsequent
process of globalization which has been driven by American economic
and cultural power.
At the same
time, there was a perception for most of the 1990s that no major
global or regional player was ready yet to challenge US political-military
power. And when it came to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and
the civil war in Yugoslavia, US administrations responded by building
political-military coalitions with other players.
In fact, in
both cases, the US decided not to take certain actions – like ousting
Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq or deploying large number of ground
troops in the former Yugoslavia – because it recognized the constraints
operating on its power, including opposition from partners and adversaries.
the administrations of Presidents George Bush the First and Clinton
had warned that launching an all-out invasion of Iraq would produce
a major and costly diplomatic and military backlash from both global
allies and regional players – exactly the kind that the administration
of George Bush the Second is facing in the Middle East right now.
in which the American hegemon was challenged and was forced to adjust
to the international political-military realities occurred during
the last years of the Clinton Administration, including the decision
by India and Pakistan to test their nuclear weapons; the collapse
of the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations at Camp David and
the start of the Second Intifada; and the US agreement to allow
China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Washington did their best to rationalize and put a positive spin
on these developments. But the fact remained that the Americans
couldn't prevent New Delhi and Islamabad from joining the global
nuclear club; they couldn't deliver a peace between the Israelis
and the Palestinians; and they were forced to de-link their trade
policies with China from that country's human rights conduct.
In that context,
the decision by president Clinton and his aides to take the path
of bilateral negotiations with North Korea, including the trip by
thensecretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang created
the conditions for a gradual peaceful resolution of the North Korean
It was the
decision by President Bush and his aides to reject the advice of
China, South Korea, Russia and Japan to continue the US bilateral
negotiations with North Korea that led eventually to Pyongyang's
decision to go ahead with its nuclear test.
the pledge to pursue "humility" in foreign policy that
he had made during the presidential election campaign of 2000, President
Bush's ended up embracing a unilateral hegemonic strategy aimed
at asserting that Washington was "in charge" – a response
in part to the 9/11 terrorist acts which were seen in Washington
as a dramatic challenge to US supremacy.
was incorporated in the Bush Doctrine and its emphasis on preemption
and regime change that led to the invasion of Iraq and the current
nuclear crisis with North Korea. US Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice and other officials insist that the Bush Administration is
now doing more diplomacy and going multilateral.
it is using multilateral setting, including the UN Security Council
to deal with North Korea and Iran. So why do their partners continue
to criticize them? But the "new" Bush-Rice policy has
to do more with tactics and public relations than with strategy
In the Middle
East, a serious US diplomatic effort has first and foremost to include
a willingness to negotiate with Iran (and Syria) over a "grand
bargain" that includes achieving stability in Iraq, the Israel-Palestine
conflict and a resolution of the nuclear issue.
This is the
kind of package deal that US allies in Europe and the Middle East
want Washington to reach with Iran. The Bushies reject the approach
which they portray as "appeasement" and demand that their
partners join them in imposing punitive measures on Iran.
while US partners in Northeast Asia, including China, South Korea,
Russia and Japan, are clearly concerned over the North Korean nuclear
test, they also consider bilateral talks between Washington and
Pyongyang as the most practical way to deal with the current tensions.
But again, the Bush Administration is opposed to the idea and calls
for sanctions against North Korea while stressing the need for the
Chinese to "take the lead" in the process of punishing
both diplomatic arenas, the Bush Administration would have to readjust
its policies sooner than later. In fact, it now has an opportunity
to make diplomatic deals with both China and Russia as way of winning
their cooperation on both Iran and North Korea.
But there are
no indications that President Bush is willing to pay the costs of
the necessary adjustments to the evolving balance of power in the
same way that his predecessors had done.
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit
© 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.